After going 13-13 in his first year coaching the Land O’ Lakes High School softball team, there was probably an expectation of improvement and becoming more competitive in his second season.
But nobody expected a 24-3 record. Not even the team’s coach.
I knew we’d be a lot better. I didn’t know our record would be this much better,” said Mitch Wilkins.
But the Gators really were that much better.
It took players just 14 games to match last season’s win total, and they capped off the regular season with 10 straight victories. After beating Fivay 15-0 to open the district playoffs, Land O’ Lakes dropped a 2-1 decision to River Ridge. All three of the team’s defeats were by just one run.
The team’s success was no accident.
The coach, a retired police officer who has been coaching for more than 30 years, took his role seriously.
Wilkins — who has coached with the Lutz Lightning and the Lutz Leaguerettes — found out which of his players also played on travel ball softball teams, and he went to watch them play, including the junior varsity players.
He also created a travel ball team for the junior varsity team, so they’d get in extra work over the summer.
As a result, the junior varsity team had one loss and one tie last season, and went undefeated this past season. That provides not only a good foundation for the softball program, but a talented reserve that Wilkins can use to replace graduating seniors on his varsity squad. It also helps to create a true team atmosphere that fosters camaraderie.
“The girls get used to playing with each other. They understand the brand of ball that we play. And they enjoy it, or they wouldn’t still be there,” Wilkins said.
That style of ball doesn’t include a lot of power hitting. Instead, the Gators try to remain unpredictable, combining strong pitching with stealing, bunting and hitting to overwhelm their opponents. And with seven shutouts and eight games where they scored double-digits, that style is working.
It’s also working for junior Gaby Santiago, who has played with the team since her freshman year.
Santiago notices a big difference in the team since Wilkins came on board.
“Since coach got here, team unity has gotten better,” Santiago said. “My freshmen year it was kind of a mess, but coach really brought us together over the past two years.”
Wilkins showed the team that he cared early on, Santiago said. By showing up to their travel ball games, it was clear that he was serious about building a strong program and getting the most out of his players. Team meals have also become a regular part of game day, which has also improved team unity.
Another activity Wilkins introduced to Land O’ Lakes is what he calls “positives.” After each game, the team gathers and gives positive feedback to each other, noting what their teammates did well during the game.
“We always end with positives. After the game we circle up and everybody’s got to say something positive that somebody else did during the game,” Wilkins explained. Allowing players to hear praise from their teammates helps keep things in perspective, softens the blow when things don’t go well and lets the team end each game on a high note, regardless of the score.
With a successful season in the books and a strong foundation in place, the future also looks to be promising for the Gators. They’ll lose four seniors, but have a skilled junior varsity squad to find replacements, and a team mindset to help the new players fit in.
And even though they didn’t go as far as they wanted this season, Wilkins is pleased with their effort and success.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Wilkins said.
Published April 29, 2015